Over the past 30 days, the city of Boston has been pummeled by multiple storms that have dumped more than 70 inches of snow on the city, breaking the previous 30-day record total of 58.8 inches set in 1978.
While clearing the roads and walkways is one challenge, disposing of the large piles of snow scattered around an already congested city is another, especially with a fourth snowstorm forecast to move into New England later this week.
In order to reduce the piles of snow, Boston has opened five ‘snow farms' at vacant parcels of land throughout the city, where work crews continue to unload thousands of truckloads of snow. Yet as one whopper of a storm follows another and frigid temperatures remain, space in Boston grows ever tighter.
The city has received an unprecedented amount of snow, according to Mayor Marty Walsh, and they've had to use industrial snow melters, on loan from Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Port Authority, to melt snow as all five snow farms approached capacity at various points.
Despite the public works department melting more than 6,000 truckloads of snow over the past several days, Walsh told the Boston Globe that the snow melters were struggling to keep up with demand and the city has considered dumping snow in Boston Harbor. However, it would first need to notify the Boston Conservation Commission due to the fact that road salts and other chemicals in the snow could pose an environmental risk.
Snow piles at intersections throughout the city were reaching as high as 10-20 feet according to Mike Dennehy, interim commissioner of the Boston public works department. Much of the focus is on reopening travel lanes, turning lanes and keeping sidewalks clear, so pedestrians don't end up walking in the streets, he added.
"If we did not have these five sites, we would have a major public safety issue and even more congestion," Dennehy said.
More than 400 active plows were out Monday evening as the third major storm in two weeks began to wind down and Dennehy said they try to hit the roads at night to avoid further congestion. For the season, road crews have logged more than 218,000 miles of plowing in over 115,000 hours.
Meanwhile, at the #Boston snow farm in the Seaport.... pic.twitter.com/DnmnKLGJTU— Eric Fisher (@ericfisher) February 7, 2015
Snow melters are melting 400 tons of snow per hour at the city's snow farms to make room for new truckloads #BOSnow pic.twitter.com/6eIkhFsLOP— City of Boston (@NotifyBoston) February 9, 2015
Back in November, parts of western New York were buried under 6 feet of lake-effect snow. In Orchard Park, more than 220,000 tons of snow had to be removed from Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
To help with the removal, the Bills contacted Chuck Lantzman, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Snow and Ice Management Company. The company owns two "Snow Dragon" snow melters and brought one to the snowbound region to help dispose of the snow from the Bills stadium.
At the core of the machine is a 9 million BTU per hour burner which keeps 1,200 gallons of water heated between 70 and 90 F. In Orchard Park, about 60 tons of snow was melted per hour just from the Snow Dragon alone, Lantzman said.
"It's a newer technology, it helps [with] going green, because everything's filtered and so you're not dumping pollution," said Lantzman, whose company provides commercial snow removal across seven states in the Northeast.
The melters have multiple filters to catch oils and debris that gather in the snow. The pollution-free water from the melted snow is then typically dumped into a catch basin, Lantzman said.
"If you just load up a pile of snow in a dump truck and go dump it in a field, whatever you scoop up or scraped off the asphalt is now in that field," he said.
The snow melters aren't cheap, however, and not many snow removal companies own them because of their cost; Lantzman said his machines cost around $300,000 each. Greater demand for the melters comes from areas such as New York City where there is less space to dump snow. For rural localities, it's cheaper to move the snow into snow farms, Lantzman said.
In Philadelphia, the snowfall amounts have been far less than Boston this season, totaling only 5.2 inches, and typically the city only receives a major snowstorm with over a foot of snow about once every five years, Philadelphia Streets Commissioner David Perri said.
Still, the planning and preparations is a significant undertaking, especially with nearly 2,500 miles of roadways potentially to treat in a winter storm event.
"We've haven't had much snow yet this year, but it's been an unusual year in that we've had a lot of deployments in anticipation of snow coming," Perri said.
When Philadelphia is forecast to receive an inch of snow, up to 70 vehicles are deployed for a salting operation for more than 1,300 miles of primary and secondary roads. For the tertiary residential streets, it's more of a dig-out operation, because cars are parked on both sides of the road and some are only 7 feet wide. When 5 or more inches are forecast, a snow emergency is declared, and parking bans are enacted on snow emergency routes, typically where universities and hospitals are located.
Perri said the city identified two locations that could serve as snow farms in the event of a major snowstorm, but they will not use snow melters. However, the city is looking at other new technologies to aid in winter storm preparation including adding in-road sensors that can tell whether there's ice forming on roads, as well as determine the road and air temperature. Additionally, they are looking to add GPS trackers to their contractor vehicles and their own snow plows so they can get a better feel for how long it will take to complete the operation.
"We've been getting frequent ice storms in this area, and knowing that the roadway would be susceptible to freezing would be critical for us to be able get out ahead of that type of event and get some treatment chemicals down to keep the roadways safe," he said.
Philadelphia is not like Buffalo or any other far northern cities where snow removal can become a full-time operation, according to Perri, as the city doesn't have as much dedicated equipment to handle snow events. Whenever the city receives more than 5 inches, Perri said that they equip 125 trash trucks with plows to assist with cleanup.
Even though Philadelphia hasn't received a lot of snow this winter, compared to last year when it received 68 inches, three times the normal seasonal snowfall, Perri said they've had nine deployments, which is fairly high because a typical number of deployments for an entire winter are around 12.
"We're very sensitive to the weather forecast that we receive and we watch because these deployments cost money and if we can avoid putting equipment out there when we don't have to it's beneficial to us," Perri said.